August 19 – Going, Going,…

Today’s factismal: Africa has gone a year without a new case of polio.

You want some good news? Some really, really good news? Africa has gone a full year without a new case of polio being diagnosed. That means that they are 1/3 of the way to being a polio-free zone. To put this into perspective, in 1988, when the current polio vaccination push began, there were 350,000 cases of polio each year in Africa. By 2013, that had dropped to 416 cases. And over the past year that has become none.

In 1900, polio was found in every country

In 1900, polio was found in every country

Last year, it was only found in two (Pakistan and Afghanistan)

Last year, it was only found in two (Pakistan and Afghanistan)

The amazing thing is that this drop has happened despite the widespread endemic trouble in Africa. Nine people doing polio vaccinations were shot to death in 2013. Boko Haram in Nigeria has called for vaccinators to be “punished” for “un-Islamic activities”. Somalia has been engaged in a long-running civil war that has made vaccinations difficult to come by. And refugee camps are natural breeding grounds for disease as groups of unvaccinated people from different regions mix together. And yet, despite having the deck stacked against them, the Africans have managed to reduce polio cases to zero.

A child in Chad receiving the polio vaccine (Image courtesy NIH)

A child in Chad receiving the polio vaccine
(Image courtesy NIH)

The Africans are traveling the same path that America went down in the 1950s, after Salk developed an effective polio vaccine. Before the vaccine, polio would kill more than 6,000 people each year in the US. By 1965, the threat of polio had become a distant and unregretted memory. Worldwide, the polio vaccine has saved about two million lives each year and kept another 750,000 from being paralyzed. To put it mildly, the vaccine is a blessing that has wiped out polio in all but three countries ((Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria). If you’d like to help make polio a memory in those three remaining countries, then make certain that you and your family have had your vaccinations, and join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:

August 18 – Thar She Blows!

Today’s factismal: On average, a volcano erupts somewhere on Earth each week.

If you’ve been reading the news, then you may have seen an article about Cotopaxi, a volcano located near the capital of Equador. Right now, Cotopaxi is shooting plumes of ash seven miles up into the stratosphere and warming up the snow that covers its summit. Of the two, the snow is the more dangerous thing; when snow melts and mixes with volcanic ash, it can create a lahar which can roll downhill at up to 60 mph covering everything in a layer of steaming mud; it was a lahar that buried Pompeii and a lahar that destroyed Martinique.  But, worrisome as that is, the eruption itself is nothing unusual. There are about 1,500 volcanoes scattered across the globe and every week one or another of them erupts.

A fire fountain in Hawai'i (Image courtesy USGS)

A fire fountain in Hawai’i
(Image courtesy USGS)

Of course, some of the eruptions last longer than others. (For eruptions lasting longer than four years, seek your geophysicist’s advice.)  Stromboli has erupted at irregular intervals for the past thousand years or so but only for a  month or so each time.  But Mauna Loa has erupted almost continuously for at least 700,000 years. The one thing that eruptions have in common is that they are all different, thanks to the types of magma/lava involved and the location of the volcano. (Remember that it is magma when it is in the Earth and lava when it is on the surface.) A volcano with a hot, thin lava that spews into the air can create a fire fountain like the one at Mauna Loa. A volcano with a thick, cooler lava that erupts under water can create a phreatic explosion that blasts bits of the volcano for miles around, like Tambora did back in 1815. Right now, Cotopaxi looks more like a mini-Tambora than another Mauna Loa, but we never know.

Deception Island in Antarctica is a volcano that last erupted in 1969 (My camera)

Deception Island in Antarctica is a volcano that last erupted in 1969
(My camera)

And that’s why we watch volcanoes – so we can learn more and maybe predict what will happen next. If you’d like to do more than watch, then why not download the myVolcano app from the British Geological survey?

August 14 – Round And Round

Today’s factismal: We’ve been able to prove that the Earth was round for nearly 2,400 years. We’ve been able to prove that the Earth rotates for just 162 years.

One of the more frustrating things in science is having a great idea but being unable to prove it. Your idea may be simpler, easier to understand, and explain what we see better than every other theory out there, but if you can’t test it, then it just isn’t science. (Ask a physicist about string theory if you want an example of this in action.) And one of the more interesting things in science was that for nearly 300 years we knew that the Earth had to rotate but we couldn’t prove that it did so.


Proving that the Earth was round was fairly simple. In Greece, back in 350 BCE, Aristotle put together a list of ways to prove that we lived on a sphere. He pointed out that every way you traveled, things curved “down” (that’s why the last thing you see as your friend walks away on the beach is the top of his head) and the only shape that does that is a sphere. Aristotle also pointed out that the constellations move higher or lower in the sky as you move (thus setting the stage for celestial navigation) which again implies a sphere. And he pointed out that the Earth’s shadow as seen on the Moon during an eclipse is always a circle and only a sphere can do that. So we knew that the Earth was round fairly early, and could prove it. (Heck, we even knew how big it was.)


But Aristotle and his friends all placed Earth at the center of the Universe, with everything (including the Sun) revolving around it. When that happens, there’s no need for the Earth to rotate. It took Copernicus to show that the Universe would be a simpler place if the Sun stood still and all of the planets revolved around it. And, though (almost) everyone eventually agreed that was right, it meant that the Earth had to rotate – but there wasn’t any direct proof that it did so. The motion of the stars and planets could have been explained by the old Ptolemaic system; we needed to measure the Earth’s rotation. And in 1851, we got one.

A Foucault pendulum knocks over a peg, proving that the Earth rotates (My camera)

A Foucault pendulum knocks over a peg, proving that the Earth rotates
(My camera)

A physicist by the name of Leon Foucault had the bright idea of just using a pendulum. Though they had been around since time immemorial and had been understood since Galileo’s time, nobody before Foucault realized that a properly hung pendulum would stay swinging in one plane. This meant that the pendulum would keep swinging in one direction while the Earth rotated underneath it. To understand this, imagine a merry-go-round underneath a really tall swing; as the merry-go-round turns, people on it see the swing change its direction even though it is the merry-go-round that is actually turning. The same thing happens with a Foucault pendulum, and in 1851, he showed it. We had our first proof of the Earth’s rotation and the Ptolemaic system was finally and conclusively shown to be wrong.

In order for it to work well, a Foucault pendulum needs a really, really long line and a big weight (My camera)

In order for it to work well, a Foucault pendulum needs a really, really long line and a big weight
(My camera)

Today, scientists are looking for evidence to test all sorts of ideas, ranging from simple ones (like general relativity) to complicated ones (like string theory). If you’d like to help, then why not join in the Galaxy Zoo community?

August 13 – Yo-Ho-Ho!

Today’s factismal: There are at least 140 different seas on Earth.

You’ve probably heard of someone “sailing the seven seas”. You may even have wanted to do it yourself. But exactly what are the seven seas and why are they called that? As usual, there is a modern answer, an ancient answer, and the right answer.

The Aegean Sea was known to the ancients (My camera)

The Aegean Sea was known to the ancients
(My camera)

The ancient answer comes from the Greeks. They were great seafarers and sailed all over the “known world”. In doing so, they encountered many different bodies of water and called the largest and most important of them “seas”. To a Greek sailor of 300 BC or so, they seven seas would be the Aegean Sea between Greece and what was Troy and is Turkey, the Adriatic Sea between what was Rome and now is Italy and what was Illyria and now is Croatia, the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea between Turkey and the Ukraine, the Red Sea between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Persian Sea (now known as the Persian Gulf) between what was Persia and what is Saudi Arabia and what was Persia and what is Iran, and the Caspian Sea between what was wasteland and now is Russia and what was Persia and now is Iran. When a Greek sailor said he had sailed the seven seas, he was bragging that he had been all across the known world; he’d been everywhere, done everything, and gotten the toga.

The Atlantic Ocean, anotehr ancient "sea" (My camera)

The Atlantic Ocean, anotehr ancient “sea”
(My camera)

The modern answer is both the same and different from the ancient answer. The modern description of the seven seas includes the Arctic Sea, the North Atlantic Ocean, the South Atlantic Ocean, the North Pacific Ocean, the South Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Southern Ocean (also known as teh Antarctic Ocean). Though the seas are different, they idea is still the same. For someone to say that they have sailed the seven seas today means that they’ve been everywhere, done everything, and have the T-shirt to prove it.

The Coral Sea (My camera)

The Coral Sea
(My camera)

So what is the right answer? The right answer is that there is no actual answer. There are at least 140 different regions on Earth that are described as seas. Some of them are large bodies of salt water, like the North Atlantic. Some of them are tiny, little freshwater ponds, like the Caspian. (Tiny being a relative term; the Caspian Sea is literally half the size of Texas.) Some of them have clearly defined borders, like the North Pacific. Some of them have no real borders at all, like the Sargasso Sea. (The Sargasso Sea does, however, have plenty of boarders.) So pick any seven to sail and those can be your own, personal seven seas.

The Antarctic Ocean, one of the modern "seven seas" (My camera)

The Antarctic Ocean, one of the modern “seven seas”
(My camera)

And while you are sailing, why not do some science along the way? To learn more about coral reefs and how they form oases in the oceans, then head on over to the Coral Reef Monitoring Program!

August 11 – Terrible Lizards

Today’s factismal: The most famous paleontologist in the early 1800s was a citizen scientist.

Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, science (or, as they called it, natural philosophy) was a gentleman’s game. It took money and leisure to do the experiments that transformed alchemy into chemistry and turned biology from a descriptive science into a predictive one and invented meteorology.  Since most of the leisure time (and all of the money) was held by gentlemen at the time, they were the ones who got most of the credit for the sciences.  But they did surprisingly little of the work. For example, most of the discoveries about what makes electricity and magnetism work were made by Michael Faraday, the son of a poor blacksmith; only a lucky meeting with a well-to-do chemist allowed Faraday to work in the laboratory where he made his discoveries. And at that, he was far more fortunate than Mary Anning who spent her life scrabbling to find fossils and barred from entry into the Royal Society (Britain’s main scientific society) by her sex.

A pleisosaur ( lizard) (My camera)

A pleisosaur (“close to a lizard”)
(My camera)

Mary Anning was born in 1799 on the south coast of England. That accident of geography would come to dominate her life. At the time, there was a mania in England for two things: summers by the sea and collecting “oddities”. Mary’s home had plenty of both. The wide beach and nearby railroad turned her village into a popular resort. And the crumbling limestone cliffs provided an nigh-well endless supply of “devil’s fingers” and “snake stones” (today we call them belemenites and ammonites) to sell to the tourists. Mary soon joined in on the frivolity, selling fossils and searching for more. But unlike the others, Mary didn’t earch haphazardly and she didn’t just search during the summer. Instead, she went out after winter storms, when new cliff had been exposed by the pounding waves, and picked up what she could.

A pteranodon ("toothless wing") (My camera)

A pteranodon (“toothless wing”)
(My camera)

And what she could pick up was simply  amazing. When she was 12, she and her father found one of the first known ichtyosaur skeletons. Soon she would add two pliesosaurs and a pterosaur along with countless ammonites and beleminites  to the list. She was so successful that by the time she was 27, she had saved up enough money to buy a shop eponyously named Anning’s Fossil Depot.  And she didn’t restrict herself to finding the fossils. She also examined them, carefully. She was the first to identify beleminites as relatives of the cuttlefish based on a fassilized ink sac. More disgustingly, she also identified the lumpy brownish stones that were common in the area as coprolites (fossilized poop). Despite her extensive knowledge of fossils and close relationships with paleontologists across Europe, she was unable to publish any of her discoveries in scientific journals as she was “only” a self-taught woman.

A Devonian ammonite like the ones Mary Anning found (My camera)

A Devonian ammonite like the ones Mary Anning found
(My camera)

Sadly, Mary Anning died of breast cancer when she was just 47. After her death, her legend grew and her numerous contributions to the science were finally given their due. If you’f like to learn more about Mary and her many contributions, the best place to start is in a Victorian jouranl. And while you are reading through it, you might do a little science of your own. The Science Gossip website is looking for citizen scientists to sort through Victorian journals and help them classify the images and trace the origins of the species known today as citizen scientists. To learn more, climb over to:

August 6 – In The Zone

Today’s factismal: Scientists have been measuring the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone” for thirty years.

Last year, we had some good news: the 2014 “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico started out just half as big as the one in 2013; unfortunately, before the year ended, the dead zone had grown to be almost as large as the previous year’s. And the 2015 dead zone looks to continue the trend; it will cover an area the size of Connecticut (roughly 5,500 square miles) and will wreaks massive havoc on fish stocks, crawfish, and shrimp. The relatively steady size of the dead zone indicates that the Mississippi basin is relatively stable.

But why should what happens in Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas, and 28 other states have an effect on the Gulf of Mexico? It all happens because of the fertilizer. The Mississippi and its tributaries gathers run off from farms in 31 states; quite often, that run off includes fertilizer and top soil. Those two nutrients wash all the way down into the Gulf of Mexico where it forms a thin lens over the denser, saltier ocean water. This had the effect of ringing the dinner bell for algae and phytoplankton (those autotrophs we were just discussing) and they respond by gorging themselves on the nutrients and running off to make little baby algae and phytoplankton; it becomes what a biologist calls a “bloom” and swimmers call “yucky”.

Water from the Mississippi and other rivers carries nutrients into the Gulf, creating dead zones (red) (Image courtesy MMM)

Water from the Mississippi and other rivers carries nutrients into the Gulf, creating dead zones (red)
(Image courtesy LUMC)

The process doesn’t stop there. All that blooming phytoplankton brings in hungry little critters like krill and copepods. These critters feast on the phytoplankton and algae and excrete used autotroph that drops to the ocean flooor where it feeds colonies of bacteria (sorry, Sponge Bob!). And that’s where the trouble starts, because the bacteria use up so much oxygen when they eat the slimy scat that nothing else can live in the ocean column above them; they create a “dead zone” devoid of oxygen.

How to create a dead zone (Image courtesy Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium)

How to create a dead zone
(Image courtesy Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium)

This isn’t a new problem; according to sediment cores, there’s been a summertime dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico for more than a century. And scientists have been sailing the Gulf of Mexico to measure the size of the dead zone fro thirty years now. And in those thirty years, they’ve discovered some interesting things. The size of the dead zone changes year by year. During drought years, the dead zone shrinks because less fertilizer is washed to the ocean. And during wet years, the dead zone gets bigger. For example, they estimate that the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers pushed 104,000 metric tons of nitrate and 19,300 metric tons of phosphorus into the Gulf of Mexico in one month alone! The good news is that the level of nitrogen was 21% below average. The bad news is that hte phosphorus was 16% above average.

To understand what effect these sorts fo changes have, the scientists need more data data than they can collect on one cruise – and that’s where you come in! The marine biologists at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science would love to have you help them monitor the number and types of phytoplankton in the water near where you live. They’ve set up the Phytoplankton Monitoring Project, where you can volunteer to do a plankton tow (more fun than it sounds) and enter your results. They are particularly interested in getting groups of Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts to adopt an area and take samples twice a month. To learn more, float on over to:

August 3 – Up To Bat

Today’s Factismal: Two species of bats eat other bats.

It would be hard to find a mammal that gets less respect than the bat. Feared, reviled, unfairly labeled – and those are the good parts! And yet, the more than 1,200 species of bat are an essential part of the food chain.

Three out of four bats are insectivores that delight in eating flying bugs such as mosquitoes, gnats, and other noxious critters; all told there are about 900 species of bat that use their sharp hearing to clear the skies of nasty gnats. That leaves aabout 300 species that are fugivores that eat fruit, nectar, or pollen. Among the remaining 200 species or so are oddballs such as bats that eat fish (194 species), bats that eat birds (a dozen species), and bats that eat other bats (two species; the Ghost Bat of Australia and the Spectral Bat of Mexico and South America).

No less varied than their diet are their nesting habits. Some bats live in small colonies, hidden in the cracks and crevices of caves. Other bats live in huge colonies, looking like the oddest fruit possible as they hang from trees. And yet other bats live in solitary family groups, nestled deep in upside-down nests made out of leaves that the bats have chewed into a primitive tent. It is their adaptability in food and home that has made bats the second-most common mammal, after rodents. One in every five mammals is a bat.

Spectacled bats in Australia are frugivores

Spectacled bats in Australia are frugivores
(My camera)

But the one thing all bats have in common is their voracious appetite; flying is a strenuous business that requires lots of calories. As a result, bats will typically eat about 1/3 of their body weight each day. To put that into perspective, a colony of 1,000 insectivorous bats will eat four tons of mosquitoes each year. And fugivorous bats are no less hungry; they’ll munch on and pollinate hundreds of plants such as coconut palms, bananas, peaches, figs, mangoes, cloves, chocolate, balsa, and agave cacti each night. All told, more than 150 different types of plants rely on bats to propagate. And in the rainforest, 90% of the plants rely on bats!

The bublebee bat, a contender for the world's smallest mammal (Image courtesy SciTechDaily)

The bublebee bat, a contender for the world’s smallest mammal (Image courtesy SciTech Daily)

Though they may all have huge appetites, bats range widely in size, from the tiny bumblebee bat (a contender for the world’s smallest mammal) to the giant golden-crowned flying fox (with a five-foot wingspan and four pounds of fruit munching muscle). Not surprisingly, most of the smaller, nimbler bats prefer to feast on flying insects whereas the larger bats prefer the easier prey of hanging fruit.

If you’d like to learn more about bats and how you can help them thrive, then why not visit Bat Detective?